Autism Awareness, Acceptance, or Something More?
I've always wondered about the term “Autism Awareness.” To me, it's about more than understanding autism. Instead, we should share awareness that autistic individuals are people, just like anyone else. They are unique in their brain processes, but they deserve the same rights, treatment, and quality of life as others. Although schools promote “best practices” and quality education, are they really addressing the needs of the individual? Are we really seeing EVERY autistic individual not only as deserving of a rich and full life, but also capable of having one?
What makes a life meaningful? Friends? Family? A career? Exercise or sports? Travel? Interests? Hobbies? What are the things that make our life not just livable, but satisfying? There are basic necessities in life—food, shelter, water—that most of us are fortunate enough to have. We work to maintain these necessities for ourselves and our families. But beyond that, human beings have a need for something more. There are times in life when we are too tired or sick or worn out to do more than just work, sleep, and eat, but in the long run, we humans seek out additional things to fill our time, stimulate our brains, and make us feel connected, to each other and to the world.
Schools mainly teach children academics, and in the case of children with autism, it can be less than that. Unlike most traditional classes for students without IEPs, special ed classes often use curricula or materials that rely on repetition. Topics such as science, history, and geography are often given short shrift. Art is usually a set of daily craft projects. Music is a basket of instruments in the closet. PE is often just extra time spent on the playground. Don’t get me wrong: Special ed teachers work hard, and are burdened with excessive amounts of regulations and paperwork that leave little time or energy for creating and adapting additional units of study.
But beyond the oppressive weight of regulations, time limitations, paperwork, and burn-out, there is a deeper, more pressing issue. It is often assumed that individuals who are severely impacted by autism, many of whom are diagnosed (whether rightly or erroneously) as intellectually challenged, cannot benefit from a richer, more complex curriculum. Too often, people equate lack of communication with lack of interest, extreme behaviors with extreme disengagement. People notice the lack of eye contact and assume that individuals aren’t interested in the people and things around them. This couldn’t be more wrong.
There is no reason that children and teenagers with severe autism and other disabilities shouldn’t be exposed to art, world geography, ecosystems and habitats, geology, music. I have seen classes that studied famous artists and their works; that listened to music of all genres and from different countries; that learned about the Arctic Circle and the creatures that live there. Each unit can be adapted to fit the needs of different learning styles and levels, so that all students may access the material. And in every single case, no matter the age or severity of disability, students responded. Being constantly exposed to new things leads to increased interest in the world and all the amazing things within it.
This is how we can support students in developing interests, and in building satisfying lives as adults. We can expose them to new things, over and over and over again. If a person has never been exposed to Cajun music, how will they know if they like it? If a child has never watched the Olympics, how will they know they enjoy watching ice skating? This logic can be applied to all interests and hobbies. Many individuals have limited vocabulary or use communication devices, which primarily contain lists of foods or toys. There is no icon for watching slapstick comedies. There is no option to state that they want to learn photography. They may not have the words to say that rugby looks like fun. They have never realized that stamps are all different, so how can they express that they want to start collecting them? They have never been shown pictures of trams in snowy Switzerland, so how will they understand that they want to travel there? We must expose them to new things, over and over and over again.
Introduce different types of music during other activities—classical, instrumental, jazz, rock, Celtic, Cajun, reggae, rap—you can show videos, too!
Post prints of paintings by famous artists and have students paint what they see—Van Gogh, Mondrian, Kandinsky all are colorful and interesting. They can talk about the paintings, using sentences, one word labels, or by pointing to objects they notice. Have art books in the classroom in addition to children's books.
Study a country each month. Prepare the food, hang the flag of the country (available cheap online!), study the animals and plants of the country. Learn how to read a map. Do math problems using items from the country. Have travel books in the book center.
Give students access to tablets or smartphones and let them take pictures of whatever they want. Teach them how to use the different filters.
Help them start a collection—of rocks, stamps, miniature cars, or anything that they like. They can write the descriptions, design the display, etc.
Watch videos of different and unusual sports, then try them out.
Bring in an old piece of furniture and allow students to paint or refinish it.
Home is also a place where children can build special interests or skills. They can learn to cook, to scrapbook, to watch a favorite sports team, to listen to classical music with their aunt, to work on a car with their dad, to travel with their grandparents. Share your own interests and hobbies with your child, and help them identify things that interest them. Developing these interests builds common ground and experiences between family members and also lays the foundation for a richer life in adulthood.
Take a road trip—a short one in your area, a weekend one in your state, or a cross-country trip. Allowing your child to be part of the planning and being prepared for special food requirements can avoid issues.
Try a variety of outdoor activities—canoeing, surfing, biking, hiking, parasailing, geocaching, dirt biking. Join organizations for families that enjoy these things.
Listen to different kinds of music at home so that the whole family can experience something new. Have regular dance parties.
Watch sports together on TV, but go all out! Get team jerseys, cook special food, learn the rules.
Start a pollinator garden and have the whole family participate in the care. Grow plants that attract butterflies.
Create scrapbooks together of photos, mementos, or items from trips and special activities.
And then there is the concept of giving. “Making the world a better place” is a common answer to the question of what makes our existence more meaningful. We volunteer, we donate, we practice kindnesses day-to-day. We typically find the causes that mean something special to us, whether it is mentoring children, visiting with the elderly, planting gardens or trees, donating to political causes. These things cause us to evaluate what exactly we would like to change in the world. They align with our values and give us a sense of satisfaction in belonging to something bigger than ourselves. We do these things not because we must, but because it feels good. It feels satisfying to give, doesn’t it? Yet we deny these opportunities to children with autism, simply because we assume they aren’t interested or won’t understand. This couldn’t be more wrong.
Research has shown that participating in charitable acts provides children with a sense of community. This provides assistance to others, but also enhances children’s sense of self-worth and confidence when they know that they have are valuable in this world. Shouldn’t people with autism feel that they are a part of the community? Charitable acts come in all forms, and there is always a way to tailor volunteer opportunities to the unique talents and needs of autistic individuals. I have seen autistic children learn to mow the grass for their elderly neighbors, to write letters to military members overseas, to recycle, to create personal care bags for the homeless. Each of these activities can easily be done in schools or at home. And more importantly, each of these activities can be tailored to meet the abilities of all individuals with autism.
Save foil or cans and take to a recycling center.
Write cards to children in hospitals or to members of the military.
Take flowers to a neighbor.
Take out an elderly person’s trash.
Make a picture for a family member.
Plant trees with local environmental groups or participate in beach and park cleanups.
Visit a nursing home.
Wave to the mail carrier.
Give a snack to the delivery person or trash collector.
It really all goes back to the idea of beliefs. Too often, autistic individuals are seen as “needers.” They need support, help, teaching. They are taught to communicate their wants and needs, not their hopes, interests, or dreams. Society teaches them to take, and that is who they become. I have seen far too many older children who have been ground down by others’ low expectations of them. All of their lives, they have been given a million chances to trace their names, but no chances to trace a route on a map of their lives. We need to flip this picture.
We need to start believing that they are capable of more, much more. We need to take a leap of faith and believe that, despite their outward behavior, they do understand and they aspire to more. If we believe it, and treat them accordingly, they will begin to believe it, too. We can help them be givers, not takers—to be music-lovers, athletes, and artists. Perhaps then we can begin to grasp the importance of happiness as a goal, to understand the importance of allowing our children to make choices about what they learn, and to provide all individuals with the opportunity to experience the wonder and magic of our world. Let’s increase awareness of the importance of those things and use it to help all individuals build meaningful lives. Then, in the acceptance of our shared humanity, autism awareness will have real meaning.